Shooting the messenger in Thailand By Shawn W Crispin
BANGKOK - Assault rifle-toting assassins on Friday morning opened fire on and
injured media mogul and People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) protest group
leader Sondhi Limthongkul, representing a dangerous turn in Thailand's
spiraling political conflict and raising the prospect of volatile pro- versus
anti-government street confrontations in the days ahead.
Media reports indicated two gunmen in a pick-up truck unloaded nearly 100
assault rifle rounds into Sondhi's vehicle after shooting out its tires near
his Manager Media Group's Bangkok offices. According to news reports, Sondhi
underwent emergency surgery to remove a bullet from his skull and was in stable
driver was also severely injured in the heavy-arms assault.
Nobody claimed responsibility for the attack, though initial speculation
pointed to wayward elements of the United Front For Democracy Against
Dictatorship (UDD) anti-government protest group. Earlier this week, troops
pushed the UDD from its rally site surrounding Government House after
red-shirted protesters blocked roadways, burned pubic transport buses and
threatened to ignite trucks loaded with cooking gas canisters.
Three of the UDD's top leaders are now in police custody under a
government-imposed state of emergency and several others are on the run from
arrest warrants. That includes one for exiled former prime minister Thaksin
Shinawatra, who in recent video call-ins urged his UDD supporters to launch a
"people's revolution" against the government and a broad aristocracy.
Opposition politicians affiliated with the Thaksin-aligned Peua Thai party
vowed after the military's crackdown to sustain and intensify their struggle
from underground. Peua Thai member of parliament Worawut Ua-apinyakul was
quoted in the local press on Thursday saying that the UDD would unleash a
"covert struggle" that would exact violence worse than that seen in the
country's Muslim insurgency-hit southernmost provinces, where over 2,000 have
died since 2004.
A second-line UDD leader recently told this correspondent that the protest
group's next round of anti-government protests would be "better-armed". Asia
Times Online broke the news on Tuesday that UDD operatives had for the past two
years funneled arms through Cambodia to Thaksin-aligned supporters in the
country's northeastern provinces, where his grassroots support runs strongest.
(See A battle
won in Thailand's 'war').
Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayakorn said in an interview on Thursday the
Asia Times Online report was one of several reasons Prime Minister Abhisit
Vejjajiva had not yet lifted the emergency decree he declared last Sunday. The
same spokesman was quoted in local media on Friday as saying the armed attack
on Sondhi could further prolong lifting of the decree.
Sondhi's anti-government PAD protests paved the way for the military ouster of
Thaksin's government in September 2006 and a second incarnation of that
yellow-shirted movement was instrumental last year in driving two
Thaksin-aligned administrations from power. Both Samak Sundaravej's and Somchai
Wongsawat's governments were toppled by what their supporters felt were
politically motivated court decisions.
Sondhi's initial protest stage claims in October 2005 that Thaksin had
demonstrated disloyalty to the Thai throne struck a cord with a wide section of
the Bangkok-based middle class. Thaksin has consistently denied the
accusations, but the military coupmakers who toppled his government enlisted
similar anti-royal accusations, along with claims of rampant corruption and
anti-democratic tendencies, as cause for their putsch.
Sondhi has claimed throughout that his yellow-cloaked movement aims first and
foremost to protect the monarchy from usurping politicians. He has, under the
banner of "New Politics", also advocated political change that would entail a
move towards fewer elected and more appointed Lower House parliamentarians.
Last year, many perceived that Sondhi's second PAD movement had received tacit
royal blessing when Queen Sirikit attended the funeral of a PAD supporter who
was killed last October 7 during a melee with police in front of parliament.
His protest group laid siege to Government House last year for over three
months, paralyzing the workings of two Thaksin-affiliated governments, and in a
tumultuous crescendo in late November seized Bangkok's international and
Whether the assassination attempt against Sondhi heralds the violent beginning
of a pro-Thaksin hit-and-run insurgency aimed against the government and the
UDD's declared "aristocratic" and "establishment" enemies is still unclear. The
armed attack on Sondhi, some analysts note, comes on the heels of a foiled
arson attack against the main offices of the Bangkok Bank and Charoen Pokphand
Group, two of the country's largest and most influential corporations.
Others contend that the outspoken Sondhi has earned enemies from both sides of
the political divide through his often stinging television critiques. They
point to recent ASTV broadcasts that criticized both the police and military
for not maintaining security, and Abhisit's government for allowing UDD
protesters to criticize privy councilors during recent rallies. At the same
time, his television station's commentators, including former PAD spokesperson
Anchalee Paireerak, have criticized minor royals during broadcasts.
Sondhi and the PAD were open targets for the UDD, whose speakers consistently
claimed on stage that his protest movement had worked in cahoots with the
military to bring Abhisit to power. UDD supporters plastered stickers
portraying Sondhi and Abhisit on their protest site's walkways, a potent insult
in Thai culture which emphasizes the importance of keeping the head above the
foot. UDD-affiliated vendors sold portraits of his head affixed to the body of
a dog, another grave insult in Thai terms.
One UDD co-leader, Jakrapob Penkair, had in recent weeks filed a defamation
suit against Sondhi's ASTV satellite television for critical comments aired
about him during one of the PAD's protests. The PAD had frequently criticized
Jakrapob, a former Thaksin government spokesman, after he was forced to resign
his ministerial post in Samak's government in early 2008 after a police
official filed lese majeste charges against him.
One ASTV director recalled the threats made last year by pro-Thaksin military
official Major General Kattiya Sawadipol, who threatened to use violence
against the PAD unless it abandoned its protest site at Government House. He
was quoted by The Nation newspaper threatening a "massacre" of PAD supporters,
saying: "I would like to say that anyone wanting to join the rally should
reserve a temple for his or her own funeral. Being united, you will be slain in
UDD supporters complain about a perceived legal double standard, where UDD
leaders have been held without bail in police custody for their protest
activities, while PAD leaders, including Sondhi, have been allowed to post bail
after hearing charges related to the PAD's seizure of Bangkok's airports.
The fear now is that Friday's assassination attempt could indicate that the UDD
and Thaksin's supporters aim to bypass the courts and mete out justice as they
see fit on Thailand's increasingly mean streets.
Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia Editor. He may be
reached at email@example.com.